Documentarian Andreas Pichler, who grew up on a dairy farm, looks at how the industry has changed over the decades. Through interviews with farmers and industry experts he looks at the economic pressures of milk manufacturing and the knock-on effects this has on their animals and the environment.
At one end of the spectrum we see the small scale organic farmer who’s seen as a kook by other farmers for having the out-there idea of letting his cows live outside and eat grass, and at the other end of the scale we see huge farms in Europe and China which see their animals as nothing more than milk machines.
We get insight into the global impact of the booming industry, including the deregulation that keeps farmers having to maintain a surplus which in turn keeps prices at rock bottom, the huge EU subsidies needed to keep European farmers afloat, the quest for new markets which is driving demand in Asia and the the impact on small-scale farmers in Senegal of having surplus EU product dumped on them.
But beyond the economics, Pichler looks at the way the cows are fed on protein-rich soy, the majority of which is grown in former rainforests (so even locally sourced milk is probably contributing to rainforest destruction). Unfortunately the cows only absorb a third of this, leading to high levels of nitrogen in their manure which, when used as fertiliser, creates further toxic gases.
He looks as the long-touted but dubious claims of milk’s health benefits, from its Chinese marketing which promises it makes you taller (it doesn’t) to the oft-made claim that it’s essential for strong bones (fracture rates are actually higher in countries which consume large amounts of milk). And then there’s the conditions the animals are kept in, the repeated insemination and the intensive milking they’re subject to.
Much of the animal abuse on display is hard to watch, even though this isn’t packaged as a shocking exposé of animal welfare conditions. There’s no abattoir footage of newborn male calves being sent for slaughter, but it’s almost made more shocking by the fact everything we see – the cows packed into barns like sardines, the grotesquely full udders of a permanently pregnant super-dairy cow being paraded at an industry fair for applauding psychopaths – is freely shown by the perpetrators, so normalised has it become in the industry. This is systematic torture on an industrial scale.
While the documentary is quite comprehensive Pichler clearly still has some emotional attachment to dairy, not giving any time to the numerous widely available alternatives. In a final scene he suggests we move to organic farming, without mentioning the vast reduction in consumption this would necessitate and the fact the emissions created by the cows themselves through flatulence (which isn’t addressed by the film) would remain the same, or even increase, given the fact that grass fed cows are far less efficient so more would be needed to create the same amount of milk.
It also seems a rather fanciful expectation, given the additional billion new Chinese consumers he identified earlier in the film, and the further rise in demand all but guaranteed by global population increases. The truth is it’s just not sustainable, so like the doctors’ advice on MacDonalds consumption in Supersize Me, dairy should be avoided altogether if possible, and otherwise consumed only on occasion.